Article, August 2005

Author: Harry Westerink

Eastern European immigrants in the Netherlands
(See here for an updated version - September 2007)

This is an article about the situation of Eastern European workers in the Netherlands. However, our contacts with Eastern European workers remain limited to some meetings we had with people from the short lived trade union for the undocumented, which was founded by and on behalf of Bulgarian workers in The Hague, and to individual visits of immigrants to our daily mostly medical and legal consultation hour in Leyden. So, we cannot write much about their daily struggles from below to survive in the rather hostile environment that the Netherlands have become. Most of the article therefore deals with the organization of the migration controls, the exploitation, the repression and the ideological framing of the immigration of Eastern European workers by the government, the political parties and even the trade unions.

Anti-racist organization De Fabel van de illegaal supports undocumented people in the Netherlands.
Now that 10 Eastern European countries have joined the EU, and with several others joining in the near future, migration of Eastern Europeans to the Netherlands has recently grown rapidly. They migrate because of work, marriage and in search of a better future with more happiness and freedom. The Dutch government tries to control this migration as much as possible. The government, all kinds of scientists and opinion makers and even trade unions struggle fiercely against illegal immigration. Documented and undocumented workers have to put up with precarious work, low pay and long working days. Some of them try to organize resistance from below against this exploitation, however difficult that is.

The Netherlands have 16,3 million documented inhabitants, among them 1,7 million "non-western allochthones" and 1,4 "western allochthones". The government considers everyone born abroad - or born in the Netherlands, but with both, or even one of their parents born abroad - an "allochthone". There are also some 0,2 million undocumented people living in the country, according to government estimates. Everyday some 250 documented immigrants come to the Netherlands. And each day some 300 persons leave the country. Officially there's more emigration than immigration. In the 70s, 80s and 90s of the twentieth century most immigrants came from Turkey, Morocco, Surinam and the Dutch Antilles. Recently immigration from these countries has diminished. The number of Polish immigrants, however, has grown rapidly.

Most Eastern Europeans migrating to the Netherlands, whether temporarily or not, come from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Poland has been an EU member since 2004, and Bulgaria and Romania will probably become members in 2007. Policy makers and opinion makers want immigration from these countries controlled as much as possible. Uncontrolled and therefore illegal immigration should be curbed. Eastern Europeans are only welcome when they are useful to the Dutch economy, when their immigration is controlled and they have permission from the Dutch government.

People from the original 15 EU member states do not need a permit from the Dutch government to work in the Netherlands. Polish workers and people from the other 9 new member states do. These permits must be acquired by their employers. In some sectors which have a shortage of personnel Polish workers can quickly get such a permit. In other sectors the employers have to prove first that they cannot get Dutch workers to do the job. Permits will be needed until May, 1st, 2006, and possibly even longer, if the government then still considers it necessary to restrict Eastern European immigration. EU countries have agreed that they can demand work permits until 2011. However, people from Eastern European EU countries are allowed to start their own one man companies in the Netherlands. Many Polish workers take this opportunity to work in the Netherlands as their own boss.

Political debate

Before Poland became an EU member some 10.000 Polish workers got a work permit each year. In the spring of 2004 in the government and in parliament a debate took place on a possible growth of the number of work permits after the joining of Poland. In May 2004 a parliamentary majority of the conservative liberal VVD, the Christian democratic CDA, the Christian fundamentalist SGP, the Right populist LPF and also the former Maoist party SP spoke out against more Polish workers. Holland would get "flooded", they said. The Christian trade union CNV agreed. Only a parliamentary minority of the green Left GroenLinks and the social democratic PvdA wanted to allow the Polish workers to come, for otherwise they would come anyway, but then undocumented and more prone to exploitation. The employers organization VNO/NCW also wanted to allow more Polish workers to come, because for many jobs no Dutch workers were available anymore, for instance in construction, they argued.

According to government statistics in 2004 some 16.000 Polish workers got work permits. That is only 6.000 more than before, although the EU principle of "free movement of people" is officially also valid for Polish people. In that year more than 25.000 Eastern European workers got work permits, especially for jobs in agriculture and horticulture, and in slaughterhouses and the meat industry. These jobs offer heavy and often boring work, and get paid very little, all reasons why Dutch workers do not want to take them. The number of Polish workers in the Netherlands is much larger than 16.000, however. Workers with one man companies and Polish workers with German passports do not need work permits. In 2004 between 34.000 and 53.000 Poles were working legally in the Netherlands, and an unknown number undocumented. According to estimates by the Dutch immigration service in 2003 between 25.000 and 33.000 Eastern Europeans were living in the Netherlands. Most of the undocumented Bulgarians live in The Hague, several thousands.

Divide and conquer

Politicians and opinion makers are continually trying to make uncontrolled immigration into a problem, instead of regarding it as a way people try to find some happiness and a better life in some other country. The government excludes the undocumented from the rest of society, smokes them out, locks them up in special jails and deportates them to countries with a lot of poverty, joblessness or violence. The foreign police and the work inspection service organize raids in companies to drive the undocumented out. And the government puts more and more pressure on unemployed Dutch workers on dole to take on the precarious and low paid seasonal work which was done before by the undocumented. That's also why the government doesn't want too many Eastern European workers to come to the Netherlands. "Own workers first", is their slogan. "We must build a dam against Polish workers flooding the Netherlands", the government said. In 2005 test projects were started to force jobless Dutch workers to work in glasshouses in three important agricultural and horticultural areas: The Hague and the nearby Westland, in Eindhoven and nearby Venlo, and in the region of Alkmaar. According to the government there are many "allochthones" amongst these low educated jobless workers.

In this way the people in power use the strategy of divide and conquer to keep the working class under control. Worker migrants, documented or not, are used to do the dirty, heavy and undervalued work that is essential to keep the Dutch economy going. The undocumented workers are also used by the government and employers as a crowbar to open the door to lower pay and less workers rights. In this way rights which have been won by the struggle of the workers are being broken down. By first taking on the undocumented - the weakest and most isolated workers - and after that the documented immigrants, and then the low paid "autochthonous" workers, the government tries to keep the working class divided and to curb solidarity between workers.

Glasshouses in the Westland

Most of the undocumented live in the 4 big cities: Utrecht, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and The Hague. The Westland near The Hague is one of the largest horticulture areas of the Netherlands. Here the government tests new strategies to repress the undocumented workers even more. 70.000 documented and some 17.000 undocumented people work in horticulture. More and more Bulgarians, Poles and Ukrainians are looking for work in the glasshouses, and they are forced to compete with the Moroccan and Turkish people who have been working there for decades. The East Europeans have to accept wages of some 3 or 4 euros per hour, whereas the Turkish and Moroccans used to get 6 or 7 euros.

The undocumented seasonal workers in the Westland work from March to October usually 7 days a week and 12 hours a day. Their bosses make a lot of money on them. Each undocumented worker saves them some 10.000 euros pay. Ten years ago most undocumented workers worked directly for the farmers. Now they all work for work agencies. The number of work agencies has increased enormously since 1998, when the Linking Act was introduced to completely exclude the undocumented from the administration and society. The undocumented could no longer work legally and pay taxes. Now bosses do not want to hire the undocumented any more. They now rely on work agencies to provide them with illegal workers. The government even made it easier for people to start a work agency. In the Westland the number of work agencies grew from a couple dozen to some 2.000 in a short period of time. The work agencies make about 5 euros an hour on each undocumented worker they rent out.

In the nineties the government started "intervention teams" to find and arrest undocumented on their jobs. The Westland has such a team since 1999, the Westland Intervention Team (WIT). This WIT is fighting "illegal work" and "tax fraud". It targets the whole chain of bosses and work agencies using undocumented workers. The WIT consists of agents of the work inspection service, the tax office, the ministry of internal affairs, several social services, work insurance organizations and the foreign police. The WIT wants bosses to better check the identification documents of their workers. They should make sure that all their workers have valid papers. But the bosses and work agencies are of course not happy with this obligatory control of the identity papers of their personnel. It doesn't serve their purposes, because they strive for a flexible and always ready reserve army of workers, without any bureaucracy. Since the beginning of 2002 there's also a new kind of "dole police": the Sociale Inlichtingen- en Opsporingsdienst (Social Intelligence and Search Service, SIOD). The SIOD goes after large scale frauds and networks using the undocumented.

Bulgarian immigrants

According to the undocumented workers themselves raids in companies are connected to the situation on the labor market and the interests of the bosses. "When there is a lot of work, there are hardly any raids. Raids increase when there's less work", a Bulgarian worker said. Most raids take place at the end of the season: in September and October. It is suspected that bosses themselves call the work inspection to get rid of the "surplus" of workers. "When you demand your pay, the bosses file a complaint with the police, and tell them that there are illegal workers, and then your money stays in their pockets and we get deported", an other Bulgarian worker explained.

According to official statistics some 750.000 Bulgarians have emigrated since the fall of the Berlin wall. In reality the number is probably even higher. There's much poverty in Bulgaria and unemployment has risen to some 35 percent for the youth. Many of the Bulgarians in The Hague speak Turkish and are Muslim. They belong to the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, some 10 percent of the population. To survive in the Netherlands these Turkish Bulgarians make use of the regular Turkish and Muslim networks. They can support people to find work, housing and mutual aid. The few non-Turkish Bulgarians in The Hague, however, mostly fall in the hands of mafia-like circuits with their brutal exploitation. Stories are heard of women having to sleep with intermediaries to get a job. Amongst the non-Turkish Bulgarians there are quite a lot highly educated couples who came with their children, and of which both man and woman seek jobs. Their children are often refused on schools and medical aid is very expensive for them because they do not know of the existence of the governmental Linking Fund which can pay for "medically required care" for the undocumented.

The police in The Hague regularly raids the houses where undocumented Bulgarians live, many of whom work in the Westland. In The Hague on the average 3 to 4 Bulgarians live in one room, for which they each pay some 140 euros a month. During these raids streets are closed, doors kicked in and dozens of people, including small children, are dragged from their homes and deported to Bulgaria the same night. Often they do not get a lawyer or the opportunity to arrange things or take belongings before leaving. Arrested Bulgarians who have applied for a work permit earlier, and are still awaiting the answer, are forced to sign a statement that they retract the application. Whoever refuses to do so will be held in custody longer. During these "sweeping" raids the police takes the passports of the Bulgarians. They are not returned and the Bulgarian embassy is forced to give them temporary passports. By these raids the government wants to scare other Bulgarians from coming to the Netherlands. The Dutch immigration service IND actively uses the Bulgarian media to make clear that undocumented Bulgarians are not welcome in the Netherlands. In Dutch media undocumented Bulgarians, and Romanians, are usually depicted as criminals, gypsies and prostitutes.

Impelled by the Netherlands the Bulgarian government recently introduced a new law stating that the passports of deportated Bulgarians should be taken away from them for a longer period of time in order to keep them from traveling back to the Netherlands. In practice officials do not strictly adhere to this law. Sometimes passports are not taken away at all, and sometimes the deportees manage to bribe the border police at the airport in order to be able to keep it. Since the Schengen countries and Bulgaria decided to end the need for visa when traveling between them, thousands of Bulgarians have been deported.

During raids in Amsterdam many undocumented prostitutes are arrested, including women from Bulgaria and Romania. The police refuses to check whether they are victims of women trafficking and criminalizes them by saying they are "a nuisance". In this way these women are made into a problem, instead of their traders, pimps and clients. For racist reasons Dutch men ask for white Eastern European prostitutes. In total, some 500.000 women are traded as slaves in Europe each year.

Polish immigrants

In the North of the Dutch province Limburg many Polish people work in horticulture. Their housing is really bad: they mostly live in caravans on campsites. Their work circumstances are also very bad. They are very important to the local economy, but that seems to be no reason to make this situation better. Now the local government wants to even chance them of these campsites by not giving special permits any more to the owners of these campsites. The Poles would scare the tourists off, they argue, and that would be bad for the tourist industry. Poles are supposedly often drunk, urinate in bushes, dump rubbish, in short: they are "a nuisance". The same arguments that have been used for years against all undocumented people are now being used against Eastern European without work permits.

In June 2005 dozens of Polish workers were fired, because they were on strike against the "slave labor" and exploitation by their boss. To get a contract they first had to pay 100 euros. They had to harvest lettuce, and got 3 eurocents per head of lettuce. Their net hourly income was between 4 and 5 euros and there is no pay at all when they get sick. They had to work 12 hours a day, one day and one night shift. One day, after working 12 hours already, they were told to work an extra 3 hours. Then they went on strike. Later the workers struggled among themselves: the strikers got angry at those willing to work. After they got fired, the strikers also got homeless. They used to camp out on a site of their boss, but they were chased away later on. A trade union official then took 10 of the strikers home, for otherwise they would have had to sleep outside. In August a judge decided that the boss acted unlawfully when he fired the strikers, and he was told to rehire them. Now the boss is going to court in order to fire them once again on the basis of a unpleasant work atmosphere. For these workers the fact that Poland has joined the EU hasn't helped them very much.

The largest work agency for foreign workers in the Netherlands is Otto, a company making 50 million euros a year. They hire many Polish workers. The Otto manager argues that it is a good thing that Polish workers come to the Netherlands, but only on a temporary basis. When they are no longer needed, they should leave swiftly again. Bosses and the government both want to keep the workers from settling in the Netherlands, and have their families come over, because that would make them less exploitable as seasonal workers with precarious labor. The manager argues for temporarity by claiming that Poles are very loyal to their country. According to him, they always want to return. Because, being Catholics, in the end they always want to be with their family.

One man companies

By now more and more Polish workers start one man companies because then you do not need to get a work permit. Poles are allowed to live in the Netherlands since the first of May 2004, but it's not easy to find a boss and to get a work permit. It's easier to become your own boss, for instance in the cleaning sector or as a subcontractor in for instance construction. But these immigrants, and also companies coming from Eastern European EU member states, still have to cope with all kinds of measures the Dutch government takes against them. Recently, the European Committee (EC) criticized the Dutch government for putting up "discriminating" requirements for the workers of Eastern European companies coming to work temporarily in the Netherlands. They have to get work permits, whereas workers in similar situations from the other EU countries don't. Because of that Eastern European companies cannot compete, the EC wrote. But it had no problem with the requirement of a work permit for Eastern European workers who come to work in the Netherlands on their own, without already being hired by an Eastern European company. The EC doesn't seem to regard this form of immigration control as "discriminating".

To curb immigration of all undocumented workers and Eastern European workers without a work permit, bosses who employ them get a fine of 8.000 euros for each undocumented captured by the police. The government also wants to start giving fines to companies that do not want to cooperate with the police searching for undocumented workers. And also the Polish one man companies are being targeted. The government wants to make it more difficult for Polish people to start their own company by forcing them to prove first that they are genuine starting an independent company. Otherwise they will also get a fine.

The work agencies are getting fined too. Recently a Polish work agency got a fine of 240.000 euros for illegal work. The bureau had 30 Poles working without a permit. The Polish workers got paid far under the minimum wage. They got 200 euros a month, whilst the minimum wage in the Netherlands is about 1.000 euros.

Eastern European women

There's an enormous demand in the Netherlands for nurses from abroad, also from Poland. Traditionally many women work In the care sector. Most Dutch workers do not fancy that badly paid, precarious, stressful and under valued work. Randstad, one of the largest Dutch work agencies, therefore tries to get Polish women, amongst others, to fill up the jobs.

In the Netherlands there's also a trade in Eastern European women. Bulgarian and Romanian women are lured to the Netherlands with stories of fine jobs or a marriage, only to be caught in illegal prostitution. It is often very difficult for them to free themselves from that situation of repression and exploitation.

There's also a trade in marriages. Whilst many Eastern European men try to find a better future in the Netherlands through work, many women hope to better their lives by marrying a Dutch man, often via the services of a marriage bureau and a catalogue of candidate brides. The border between the repression of women's trafficking and the free choice of a post order marriage is often very thin. Quite a lot Dutch farmers marry Polish women, because Dutch women supposedly do not feel like working hard on farms anymore. The farmers are therefore looking for Polish women from the countryside, who are used to a harsh existence and who are willing to work hard for the farm and their future husband. A lot of money is made by marriage agencies willing to deliver the women. The women often have little choice because of the bad economic situation in Poland, especially in the countryside. Once in the Netherlands, these women risk being loosing their independence and becoming totally under the power of their husbands.

Some of the Polish women come to the Netherlands to escape the oppressive conservative and catholic atmosphere in Poland. Sometimes they are pregnant and come asking for an abortion in the Netherlands, for that is still forbidden in Poland. And sometimes they come to get more liberty for themselves. Some have had sex without marriage, a reason for their parents to kick them out of their house. Or they had a relationship with a man who is not welcome in their community.

Trade unions and scientists

A couple of years ago Turkish Bulgarians asked The Hague Muslim Platform (SHIP) for help. Most of their problems had to do with the bad work circumstances. SHIP called the FNV, the largest national trade union, for help. Although the FNV had uttered some nice words about solidarity with all workers, the trade union never really did anything for the undocumented workers. The request by SHIP resulted in a vague reaction. Then SHIP decided to found their own trade union for undocumented workers. It was immediately attacked fiercely by the government. That resulted in some media attention for some time for the plight of undocumented Bulgarians. Repression was intensified. And the new trade union did really work either because of insufficient support by the official trade unions.

In circles of official trade unions there's not only not enough support for undocumented workers, but they actually more and more fight the undocumented workers. In 2005 several trade unions opened up a special telephone hotline where workers can denounce undocumented colleagues. The trade unions then pass this information on to the work inspection service. In this way they help to smoke out thousands of undocumented workers, amongst whom many Poles. Instead of struggling for equal rights, the trade unions collaborate with government raiding companies to catch the undocumented and deport them to their countries of origin. "Our own workers first", seems to be the slogan now. The unions now divide the workers and help the bosses and the government.

From scientific circles the repression against people without papers also mounts. Through their researches on the semi-hidden world the undocumented have live in, all kinds of sociologists, political scientists and anthropologists make it more and more difficult for the undocumented to survive in the Netherlands. More and more often scientists are paid by for instance the ministry of Justice to uncover the ways the undocumented manage to live and work. Based on the research results the government makes new repressive laws against the undocumented. The RISBO institute of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam for instance, investigated the Schilderswijk neighborhood in The Hague, where many undocumented, including many Bulgarians, live. In their publication the scientists separated the undocumented from the rest of the population, and called them a problem group. They stigmatize and criminalize them by continually connecting them to "nuisance" and crime.